Deserted in the desert, Coyotes fans preserve hockey oasis
“Hockey is more than just a sport to me. It’s a way of life,” said Heather McWhorter, an avid supporter of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes and president of the Save the Coyotes Coalition.
With the Coyotes and the NHL involved in a heated fiasco of bankruptcy proceedings this past off-season, McWhorter admitted her life would be completely different had the Coyotes been forced to relocate, a possible condition when former owner Jerry Moyes placed the team into bankruptcy in an attempt to sell the franchise to BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie.
A hockey fan since 2006, McWhorter recalled what originally drew her to the frozen sport. Formerly employed at an inpatient substance abuse treatment center for teens, McWhorter attended games with tickets that were donated by the Coyotes to the center, courtesy of the Tickets for Kids program. As a reward for treatment progression and as an effort to re-adjust to society, the children attended Coyotes games. One Saturday, the center requested McWhorter attend a game as an accompaniment.
“I figured, ‘What the heck?’ I had never been to a hockey game before. As I watched the game that first night, I was in awe of the level of skill and sheer excitement of the game.
“I wondered why no one had told me about this sport before. I was absolutely enthralled by the skill, the hits, the music – every aspect of the game.”
That night, McWhorter was awarded with a victory as the Coyotes defeated the Los Angeles Kings by a 6-4 score. McWhorter became a fan that season, deciding to learn as much as she could about the game by choosing a Coyotes player and following all his on-ice play, selecting defenseman Keith Yandle, a rookie that same season.
“As Yandle learned from his mistakes, so too did I. As his NHL experience grew, so too did my knowledge of the game. It has been fun to watch him mature as my love for the game deepens. He is now starting to show the on-ice brilliance that I always knew he had,” said McWhorter.
At that time, McWhorter was a new resident to the Phoenix area and, only two years later, has become a Coyotes season ticket holder. A former resident of Georgia, McWhorter admits that she wasn’t even aware of the existence of the Atlanta Thrashers, the home team of her former state.
“Before my first hockey game, I honestly hadn’t thought anything about the NHL. I hadn’t heard anything [about the Phoenix hockey club] in the news. I didn’t even know they were called the Coyotes. The only thing I knew about hockey was that everyone thought Wayne Gretzky was the greatest and that he had broken records,” said McWhorter.
“Even now [in Phoenix], news about the Coyotes rarely makes the front page of our local sports section. We have seen some improvements [in local media coverage] since the events that transpired over the summer, but we still rank lower than any other team in the Valley,” said McWhorter, referring to the sprawling metropolitan area of Phoenix. Those events, when Balsillie attempted to purchase the club and relocate it to Hamilton, caused great distress to the franchise and its fans.
“The damage done to this team and its fan base over the summer was immeasurable. I think the uncertainty of the team’s future kept many people away. It was an emotional rollercoaster for me and many fans,” said McWhorter.
The news of Balsillie’s offer to purchase the club, breaking May 5 of last year with a reported offer of $212.5 million that eventually grew to $242.5 million during the saga, was not a big shock to McWhorter, as the Coyotes fans were aware of the team’s financial struggles.
“I wasn’t surprised that Balsillie was involved,” said McWhorter. “After what the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators organizations went through, I had a feeling that if the Coyotes financial issues continued, we would eventually have to deal with Mr. Balsillie.
“But, I never believed the team would be sold [to Balsillie],” said McWhorter. “The way in which he attempted to manipulate the league’s rules and do things his way, I knew he would never pull it off. My initial reaction to hearing the news was that we were going to have to fight this. We were going to need a website.”